Author Topic: Structuring a written family history  (Read 11440 times)

Offline elfinblues

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Structuring a written family history
« on: Thursday 09 June 11 13:36 BST (UK) »
Hello everyone! I'm wondering if I could mine people's experiences of trying to write down their family histories in book form, if anyone here has done that. I've realised that I have a very 'compartmentalised' brain (!!) and I need to feel able to almost close one door before moving on to the next. Obviously, that's only possible to a certain extent in family history where research can go on forever, but I've decided to try and keep a 'manuscript' on the go in tandem with my actual research - in effect, writing down the stories and facts as they unfold. The ultimate aim is to produce a book or series of books that put the bare facts and the stories in my research into an enjoyable form for others to read, which I can then pass on down the generations.

As luck would have it, I am an editor by profession, so - in theory at least - writing my family history book and editing it into good shape should be achievable. What I am struggling with, however, is how to best structure it. Everybody's lives overlap to such a large degree, so 'compartmentalising' the book into chapters that cover an individual, an immediate family, a decade, and so on is proving immensely difficult. Here is where I could really benefit from hearing what other people have found works - and what doesn't work. Would one chapter per person be best, or per marriage/per family? Is a chronological, perhaps decade-by-decade structure best for a book? Are other structures more effective?

I'm dithering all over the place here, so would be really appreciative of any tips anyone might be able to offer.

Thanks so much.

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Offline purplekat

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #1 on: Thursday 09 June 11 14:48 BST (UK) »
I wonder if you need to be worried about chapters at this stage, maybe if you forgot about the structure and started writing you could organise it into chapters and move things about at a lster date. 

I started on my mother's side with my gg grandmother as I was told a story about her as a child and was fascinated by her.  I have basically written about my investigations of this story and where it has led me in my family research just because it seemed an easy way to approach things.  It does mean I'm moving back and forth in time but maybe I'll change that when I've got it all down but I think at this stage it's not possible to confine things to a person or a decade.  I'm not a writer or an expert on writing but I think you'll free yourself up if you forget about structure and jump in with the most interesting person or story and see where it takes you.  :)  :)

Hope this helps


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Offline PaulC120

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #2 on: Thursday 09 June 11 16:57 BST (UK) »
I don't know if this will help but I started writing my family history in way that hopefull my elderly father could read what I have is a front title page, followed by contents, then the 1st chapter is the paternal name , the 2nd chapter is mother maiden name , 3rd chapter Grandmother maiden name and so on . Within each chapter I start with an indented  generation list of the family members, similar to a GEDCom list, so you see a visually  relationship between each family member. Each person who is genetically linked  have a unique ref number to avoid confusion between those that have the same name but are differant people. This is followed by a simplified tree. Then the name of the oldest family member found so far with event dates and used as a hanging indent ( I think that's the correct term ) on the left and appropriate text images etc , when offspring appear I centre justify them and when they "leave the nest" they then get their own heading...

Oh and a further references/reading at the end so folk can read up on all these weird little villages inhabited by Ag. Labs :-) All done in MSWord and up to 100 pages so far
Carter - Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Leicester, Surrey
Povey - Berkshire, Sussex, Glamorgan, U.S.A.
Havell - Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Canada, Argentina
Hunt – Berkshire
Franklin – Berkshire
Mowlson – Berkshire
Chandler - Berkshire, Somerset
Wallin – Berkshire
Johnson – Berkshire
Druce - Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire
Gandy - Hampshire, Glamorgan
Phillips - Hampshire
Rowe - Buckinghamshire
Cook - Hampshire,
Cruse - Hampshire
Eyles - Hampshire
Leppard - Oxfordshire, Glamorgan

Online candleflame

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #3 on: Thursday 09 June 11 17:06 BST (UK) »
It's a really useful question as I have been putting off starting writing any of mine. It's because it just feels so big a task and I know you have to break it down into do - able chunks.
I have however put together a folder for my elderly dad solely about his eldest brother, and I just got together all the newspaper cuttings, photos etc and photo cornered them onto A4 paper,in date order  then put them in a file. Any stories that needed a bit of explanation then I just did a brief paper in Word and slotted them in at the relevant point.
Perhaps if I do that for each of one strand, it will write itself!!!
North East of England

Offline skyblueFF

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #4 on: Thursday 09 June 11 18:34 BST (UK) »
I started mine by putting down what I had found out from a lifetime of asking questions of relatives.
Then I am adding to that what I have found out from research, also correcting some of the things I had been told. I am trying not to make it to dry with a bit of humour.
As I write I feel as if I am writing a letter to my cousins. It seems to be going well so far.
HEISE ,Germany, London and Birkenhead.
HARTWELL. London. Arundel.
CAPSTICK, Westmorland and Liverpool
BUTLER Liverpool
CHARTERS,  Walton Liverpool
GORE,Sefton, Liverpool .
CRUICE Roscommon and Liverpool.
ROBINSON, Westmorland.
DACRE, Westmorland.

Offline little meg

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #5 on: Thursday 25 August 11 07:27 BST (UK) »
Hi Elfinblues,

I have co-written a family history before and am working on another now.
The following info is what I put together for a friend of mine who wanted some ideas.  Hope it is helpful!

Writing a Family History

After collecting all the names, dates, places and data, you now have to consider how you wish to present it. You want it to be something that you, your family and your descendants can be proud of.
There are various ways a family history can be written up and the most obvious would be in chronological order. However, this can cause the story to be flat and it would not be an exciting start for the John Smith was born in 1652 in the small village of Sutton, Yorkshire.

The best way to start the story is by starting with one of your most interesting ancestors (characters). You can always give up a later chapter to ‘his’ ancestors or just use a chart to show where he fits in to the Family Tree.

Family histories can be written in various forms.-

- Standard data – narrative  -

Example -John Smith was born in 1652 in the small village of Sutton, in Yorkshire. * Boring!

- Slightly Elaborated – narrative - * note: you will need to do a lot of research into your ancestor’s occupation, the village he lives in, his neighbours, the climate etc. It is probably the most acceptable as far as what most people expect a family history to be.
Example – The old dry stone church sat high on the hill.  The surrounding headstones gave a clue to its past and to the earlier village folk who once resided in the small town of Sutton.

- Highly Elaborated – narrative – This is similar to Elaborated but you can use a bit more imagination. Also acceptable but you would have to be careful how much imagination you put in, else some folk will complain that it is not a true history of that family –
Example: The Smith family approached the old dry stone church, which sat high on the hill. The small infant, dressed formally in a reused christening gown, snuggled comfortably in his mother’s arms.  It was 1652 ...

- Writers point of view – This would only work if the writer (yourself) had been to the place of his ancestors –
Example: I walked up the hill towards the old dry stone church. The surrounding headstones told me of a time that once was, a time of my ancestors.
This could also work as your intro regardless of what format you end up going with.

- Fiction + Fact = Faction – Well, I think that is what it is referred to!  This style of writing for a family history is based on all the fact you have accumulated but it is in the form of a fiction.  Now, beware, there may be some family members who will dispute this style and think you have used far too much imagination. It is your choice.
To make this work you will need a huge amount of information on your ancestor or ancestors.  Newspapers are a great source.
Let us go back to your most exciting ancestor – let’s say, John Smith born in 1652 had a descendant who was sent to Australia as a convict. (We will call him William Smith) Now this could be a great character to start with. You could start the story with his court case in England, his trip out, or his arrival. Try and make a bit of drama for the first intro just to grab the reader’s attention.
Example: William and the other prisoners were brought out on deck. “Git yer lazy a**** over ther,” yelled one of the guards. William shuffled along slowly, his leg irons were rubbing hard on his already bruised ankle. 

There are probably many other ways a family history could be written. Some people have opted for using Photobooks and just using photos and data to tell their story, only printing a small handful of books for immediate family.
Whichever format you choose it is extremely important to do your homework, not just on your family’s details but on the setting where you are placing your ancestor, whether it is his home village or a ship.  Learn all about that village; learn about ships of that time and what convicts had to deal with. The more thorough your research the more realistic the story will be.

Simpson-Kildwick,Yorkshire & Australia, Overend-Sutton, Kildwick,Yorkshire & Australia, Whitaker - Cononley/Yorkshire, Pickard - Silsden/Yorkshire, Howarth - Skipton/Yorkshire and Lancashire, Heaton-Yorkshire, Preston-Yorkshire, Myers-Yorkshire & Australia, Wild-Yorkshire & Australia. Storey-Middlesex/Australia

Offline Glen in Tinsel Kni

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #6 on: Thursday 25 August 11 20:43 BST (UK) »
A slightly different approach from my point of view, I had a fair bit of detail from newspapers and census but having been adopted from the family I never had an opportunity to add the family hearsay, what I did do was create a series of articles based on the neighbourhoods the family lived in, using census and directories to flesh out the social aspects. I asked a lot of questions that made the reader think of possible answers and, as an example, one ancestor who lived to be over 100 saw the first moving pictures and "talkies",  planes, cars, telephones, two world wars and outlived of all but one of her children.

When I sent these to family I had found their earlier reluctance to speak out was forgotten immediately and a wealth of names, dates, photographs and rummaging out family bibles, certs and wills etc took place.

Maybe it's just my family but they seem to respond more to a narrative with questions and thought provoking comments rather than a stricter type of historical account. The only downside is that I need to rewrite them to take into account the new information and avoid upsetting anyone, the plus side is that people feel involved and connected to me even though I was never brought up within the family.

Always looking for the Goulson surname in the UK, Europe and USA.

Offline mike175

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #7 on: Thursday 25 August 11 22:07 BST (UK) »
After a few false starts I eventually found that chapters seem to suggest themselves once you get going. For instance one of my g/grandfathers left several notebooks, including a journal of his holiday in 1881, so it was easy to fill a chapter on him and his immediate family. Another ancestor started a family business, which soon filled another one . . . and so on.

I found very few individuals that warranted a chapter to themselves, except perhaps those in the most recent generations where information tends to be more easily obtained.

One suggestion I would make is to create a special folder, either paper or on the computer, and write up any interesting stories about individuals or families as they come to light. Rather than trying to create a 'manuscript' from the start, keep them as separate files or pages until you have a good collection . . . then the editing skills will have something to work on ;)

As Margaret says, basic data can be very dry and boring, but it can be livened up by the introduction of snippets of relevant historical information, and of course any photographs, maps, etc. that illustrate the narrative.

Baskervill - Devon, Foss - Hants, Gentry - Essex, Metherell - Devon, Partridge - Essex/London, Press - Norfolk/London, Stone - Surrey/Sussex, Stuttle - Essex/London, Wheate - Middlesex/Essex/Coventry/Oxfordshire/Staffs, Gibson - Essex, Wyatt - Essex/Kent

Offline Billyblue

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Re: Structuring a written family history
« Reply #8 on: Friday 26 August 11 07:29 BST (UK) »
Our FHS has a "Family History Writing Group"
For those who want to write a book but "don't know where to start" we recommend writing up various short stories about happenings and/or individuals, a letter to grandma or a favourite aunt, etc
This has been suggested by a few RCers, here

Even if you don't eventually get your book written / published, you will still have the stories to pass on to your family.

Dawn M
Denys (France); Rossier/Rousseau (Switzerland); Montgomery (Antrim, IRL & North Sydney NSW);  Finn (Co.Carlow, IRL & NSW); Wilson (Leicestershire & NSW); Blue (Sydney NSW); Fisher & Barrago & Harrington(all Tipperary, IRL)